Keystone XL backers who want a showdown with President Barack Obama need at least one more supporter to force a Senate vote on Tuesday or else the drama over an export outlet for Canadian oil sands crude will be pushed into next year.
At least one more Democratic Senator is needed to get the 60 votes to pass a bill that approves the project. The House of Representatives passed similar legislation on Friday, and Senate passage would confront Mr. Obama with pro-Keystone XL legislation from both Houses of Congress.
"I hope at the end of the day we will have 60 votes we need," said Senator John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, who is sponsoring the pro-Keystone XL bill. "The time has come to act and that is what this legislation is all about."
Republican leaders were already positioning themselves for a loss and vowing to resurrect the issue if the pro-Keystone XL vote failed Tuesday.
Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican who will become Majority Leader in January in the next Congress, said he hoped the vote would pass. "It's just common sense," Mr. McConnell said. "And if not, a new majority will be taking this matter up and sending it to the president."
Mr. Obama has made clear he plans to veto any effort – even a bipartisan one – to wrest control of the decision away from him. And, in his most dismissive comments to date, the President said Keystone XL would do little for Americans.
"I won't hide my opinion about this," Mr. Obama said last week, describing Keystone XL as "a pipeline [for] shipping Canadian oil to world markets, not to the United States." He added that his key determinant for approving the $8-billion project will be whether "it contributes to the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change."
Environmentalists have turned Keystone XL into a test of Mr. Obama's vow to combat carbon emissions, which he says threaten future generations.
The issue is already affecting the 2016 presidential race.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican widely regarded as a contender for the party's presidential nomination, will visit Canada next month and is expected to meet Mr. Harper and Alberta Premier Jim Prentice. The Governor, who backed Keystone XL and a unified continental energy policy during a visit to Mexico in September, is polishing his limited foreign policy credentials. "Too often, our neighbours in Mexico and Canada have felt that they were an afterthought in U.S. foreign policy," Gov. Christie said. "Let me be clear about my view: My view is they should be our first thought, not an afterthought."
On Monday, anti-Keystone XL activists put an inflatable black pipeline outside Senator Mary Landrieu's home just east of Capitol Hill. Ms. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, championed the pro-Keystone XL legislation in the Senate in an effort to save her seat in this month's mid-term elections. She faces a run-off on Dec. 6 against Republican Bill Cassidy, sponsor of the pro-Keystone XL bill that passed 252-161 in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.
Both want Keystone XL bragging rights as they battle for the Louisiana Senate seat.
In Nebraska, the legality of TransCanada Corp.'s route approval faces a challenge from ranchers and native Americans, and the state's Supreme Court is not expected to rule until early next year. That ruling might not be the final chapter.
"The Rosebud Sioux Tribe will not allow this pipeline through our lands," warned Rosebud Sioux president Cyril Scott. "Authorizing Keystone XL is an act of war against our people."
Even if Ms. Landrieu and pro-Keystone XL Senators can scrape together 60 votes to avoid procedural hurdles, there is almost no chance of finding 67 votes to override a presidential veto. However, the legislation can be revived in January, when a new Senate with a Republican majority is sworn in.
Mr. Obama, who has delayed deciding on Keystone XL despite demands from Canada's Conservative government, has suggested in recent days the project would provide few benefits to U.S. consumers. "Understand what this project is," he said. He said it would merely allow Canadians "to pump their oil, send it through our land, down to the Gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else."
Keystone XL backers reject that view as ill-informed.
Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman said Keystone XL would "help us become more energy independent as a North American continent," and echoed Prime Minister Stephen Harper by calling approval a "no brainer, [that] should happen."
Texas Representative Joe Barton, another Republican, rejects the anti-Keystone XL argument that thwarting the project would make it uneconomic to exploit the vast Alberta oil sands. "This Canadian oil is going to be sold whether it comes down to the United States through the Keystone or goes in tankers over to China," Mr. Barton said in a TV interview.